Leadership intelligence: how to manage in uncharted territory

As the coronavirus pandemic turns academic life on its head, Robert Macintosh offers advice on how to show effective leadership in a crisis

April 16, 2020
Boat in a storm
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The coronavirus pandemic is causing a tidal wave of disruption to the higher education sector globally: universities, alongside many other kinds of organisation, are facing multiple difficult decisions in real time and doing their digital “growing up” in public.

Restrictions on international student mobility will generate financial difficulties for the next academic year. We have moved from a position of “what if” we can’t have exams and graduations as normal, to the reality of abruptly going digital in the space of a few weeks.

Naturally, staff, students and parents will ask: “What is the university doing about this?” The phrasing of this familiar question is interesting. Who, or indeed what, do we think of when we refer to “the university”?

In my experience, “the university” is a weaponised euphemism for some combination of the vice-chancellor or president and members of the senior team. The former is typically presumed to be omniscient (why else would they be paid such large sums?) and the latter are presumed to speak with one voice (they are a leadership team after all).

In the early stages of the 2006 bird flu outbreak, while acting as director of a graduate school, I was asked a rather pointed question by a difficult colleague: “I want to ask you, as director, ‘What’s the university’s position on bird flu?’”

The use of the phrase “as director” gave me advance notice that I was being positioned clearly as a decision-maker who would be expected to have a precise answer. In a moment of flippancy, I replied by saying “in principle we’re against it but I’m sure we’ll hear your argument”. Of course, flippancy wasn’t an appropriate response at the time and certainly wouldn’t be today. Bird flu came and went with nothing like the loss of life that Covid-19 has already caused.

Nonetheless, I was being asked a valid question even if the questioner tended to be awkward to deal with. They wanted to know whether they should proceed with travel plans to deliver a seminar in an area that had reported cases of bird flu.

Knowing how to respond during an unprecedented crisis is complicated, but it is still possible to demonstrate effective leadership if you consider some key ideas.

Look and listen
By definition, it is first important to realise there isn’t a worked example to follow. Nevertheless, there may be some expertise or guidance that you can call upon.

In the case of the coronavirus, a reasonable starting point is what the government is saying about working practices, self-isolating and well-being. Listening hard to the questions colleagues are asking, understanding the root cause of those questions and trying to connect those to any guidance you can find is a good starting point.

Communicate early and often
Different types of problem demand different types of response, but all problems tend to benefit from good communication. Communication is a common bugbear in many situations, and it is rare to be congratulated on how clear and timely your communications have been.

Early and imperfect is better than late and redundant. As soon as “the university” does have a position on the issue of the day, let people know. Use multiple platforms, create FAQs, think about the need to address different audiences (internal, external, students, staff) and think about the medium most likely to reach those audiences. And as new information arises don’t be afraid to update your position.

Know your limits
Difficult situations tend to evoke strong emotional responses. The coronavirus is just one example of the kind of thing that makes staff look to the leadership of the organisation for answers. Remember that if you are in uncharted territory it is OK to not know what to do immediately.

If you genuinely don’t know what the right thing to do is, then speak to members of your leadership team. Reach out into your network both within and beyond the university.

Seeking views in this way is a sign of strength, not weakness, but it is equally important to recognise that decisions will need to be made. If you’re the leader then you need to make the best decision in light of the best information and guidance available.

Learn lessons
The sector is likely to learn very specific lessons from the coronavirus experience. Contingency plans for the delayed arrival of new students and improved capacity to deliver learning remotely are just two of the lessons that are likely to have been learned.

Maybe we are collectively being forced to re-evaluate long-held pedagogic assumptions about lectures and assessments. Life is full of surprises. Unfortunately, the next challenging situation may have some similarities to previous experiences, but it will inevitably contain dimensions and consequences that are genuinely new.

The fact that the very definition of uncharted territory means that you will have to think on your feet shouldn’t deter you from reflecting on what worked well, and less well, in previous situations.

Robert Macintosh is a professor of strategic management and head of the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. He is also is chair of the Chartered Association of Business Schools.

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Print headline: How to manage in uncharted waters

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